Debate Lingers As New Board Preps For Final Say On HS-8 Land Purchase

test4Finding A Home For HS-8

Finding A Home For HS-8

Residents of Lansdowne gathered at the site slated for the future Ashburn high school, known as HS-8, Saturday to ask Board of Supervisors-elect Ralph Buona and Geary Higgins questions about it. Some of those who will neighbor the site are against the high school built there, and others are in favor. The final decision to purchase the property will go to the new Board of Supervisors, which takes office Jan. 2.

Leesburg Today
Posted Dec. 14, 2011

This weekend marks one month until the 120-day due diligence period wraps up for the 46-acre site slated for Ashburn’s newest high school, known as HS-8, and debate over whether the property is the best location still looms among some Lansdowne residents and newly elected county representatives as the site is not without its challenges.

Finding land for three needed schools in Ashburn, including the future high school, and securing construction funding for it through a bond referendum that passed last month has been a pillar of the current Board of Supervisors’ term. Yet, the final decision on the site will be in the hands of a new Board of Supervisors and School Board, which take office Jan. 1. Thirteen out of 18 members on the two boards are newcomers, and most campaigned not only on being fiscally conservative, but also vowed to catch up the county to the swelling school enrollment that has many public schools in Loudoun operating over capacity.

Although there’s no argument that a high school is needed, residents have been split on where to build it and many have been disenchanted with the process to acquire land for the school. For the past year, the Board of Supervisors’ discussion has centered on the 46 acres at the National Conference Center in Lansdowne as the site of the high school, and the final piece of a “three-school solution” to build a new high school, middle school and elementary school for Ashburn students.

In September, the Board of Supervisors unanimously approved the purchase of the site at $20 million–or $438,500 an acre–which is $45,643 more per acre than the assessed value of the entire 112-acre conference center site, including its eight existing buildings, county records show.

New supervisor Ralph Buona (R), who represents the Ashburn District that includes Lansdowne, has said he didn’t like the “pre-ordained” attitude of the school site negotiation process, and that it resulted in an extremely high sales price.

“You’ve got to always keep your leverage in negotiations-negotiating with one is never the right way to conduct a negotiation,” Buona said.

He and fellow new supervisor Geary Higgins (R-Catoctin) fielded questions during a walk-through of the NCC site organized by Lansdowne residents Saturday.

“If we’re talking usable, developable acres, we’re talking an awful lot of money,” Buona said during the walk-through. “That said, it is prime land, and prime land does cost money.”

Only half of the 46 acres on the site are developable because of its steep slopes, wetlands and floodplain, Loudoun County Public Schools Executive Director of Planning and Legislative Services Sam Adamo told the School Board during an Oct. 11 meeting.

“There are challenges to this site from logistics to environment-you name it,” Adamo said, adding the site will likely require a special foundation design.

Although a second site, the 76-acre Lexington 7 property, was on the table briefly for $25.9 million–including $7.9 million worth of infrastructure improvements, according to a letter submitted by the property’s owners to the Board of Supervisors–the Supervisors dismissed it because a four-lane road cuts through the property. Plus, County Chairman Scott K. York (R-At Large) said this week that, although the property would have cost less per acre, the price tag of the entire 76 acres would have been more than the NCC site.

A potential hiccup in the acquisition process that has yet to be discussed during a Board of Supervisors meeting is a five-year Memorandum of Understanding between the county, Loudoun Soccer and Ashburn Youth Football for use of the Lansdowne Sports Park. The school site plan would remove those public fields on Kipheart Drive, but the school system staff has said that private sports leagues have access to school fields like the ones that will be on the property.

The MOU ends in early 2014, and the sports organizations have spent more than $225,000 to improve the fields, assuming their members would play on them for the next few years, according to Loudoun Soccer Fields Manager Caroline Deutsch.

“For a nonprofit, that’s a lot of money,” she added.

No one from the county has approached either Loudoun Soccer or Ashburn Youth Football about the agreement, according to Deutsch, but the organizations are not considering taking legal actions.

“I’m not sure how we hold them accountable if they break the agreement. It’s more risky on our side than yours,” she said. “Until this, we’ve had a great working relationship with the county, and that’s something we’d like to continue.”

Anna K. Nissinen, Loudoun County’s public affairs and communications officer, said Loudoun Soccer and Ashburn Youth Football can be relocated to other county facilities while the high school is under consturction, and as more schools open, more fields will come on line. The opening of Frederick Douglass Elementary School next fall, MS-6 in 2013 and a future Dulles school, which will have lighted athletic fields and artificial turf, will provide more fields for the community, Nissinen said.

In public meetings, School Board members have shared similar sentiments. But Deutsch said the school district’s fields are not always available when the organizations need them and it costs $185 an hour to use the school district’s artificial turf fields-$165 for the school district and $20 for the Loudoun County Department of Parks, Recreation and Community Services–which they cannot afford.

Eric Hornberger, School Board member-elect for the Ashburn District, said the sports park would become the property of Loudoun County Public Schools if the high school is built on the NCC site.

“And my hope, as the School Board member representing that area, is that the school system will look to honor that agreement, so long as it does not interfere with our co-curricular activities,” he added.

Since October, both LCPS and the county have brought in engineers to perform archeological surveys, soil borings, storm water management analysis and geotechnical work as part of the due diligence process. The school district submits its development application to the county, and from there various county departments, including comprehensive planning, parks and recreation, as well as outside entities, such as the Virginia Department of Transportation, will review the results of the studies and offer their comments.

“We’re hoping to have our first round of comments back before Christmas, so that will tell us if there’s any show stoppers,” Adamo said. “Everything that we’re seeing so far hasn’t given us any pause, quite frankly, but you never know. It’s still preliminary.”

It’s too early to tell how much the engineering work will cost to prepare the site for a school building, Adamo said.

The traffic study, released last week, shows a need for $3 million worth of traffic improvements, which includes two roundabouts and the potential need to acquire 40- to 50-square-feet of land from six different residents.

The due diligence process ends Jan. 18, then the Board of Supervisors will have a final vote on whether to move forward with the purchase. The School Board will offer its recommendation, and there will also be a rezoning process, including public hearings before the Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors, to put in place the land use to allow for development of a high school.

Buona said, at this point, he can’t take a firm stance for or against the NCC site until he knows all of the details of the purchase, much of which has been discussed only in closed meetings.

“One thing that is for sure is we can’t afford any delays,” he said, adding that the approval of the bond referendum, $81 million of which is slated for HS-8, shows that a large part of the community supports it.

As is, the timeline is tight to meet the 2015 deadline for the opening of the high school to relieve overcrowded schools in Ashburn. The proposed high school plan calls for a 265,000-square-foot building with room for 1,600 students. If the high school’s opening date is pushed back one year to 2016, area high schools such as Briar Woods, Stone Bridge, Broad Run and Tuscarora will operate well over capacity.

The School Board has also held several closed session meetings with legal counsel regarding HS-8, the most recent of which was Nov. 29, although no actions were reported out of the closed meeting.

After one closed meeting related to HS-8 in August, School Board Member Joseph Guzman (Sugarland Run) said at the dais he was “not entirely comfortable with the efficiency and clarity” of the process in acquiring land for schools.

This week he clarified his comments, saying he was not referring to HS-8 specifically, but in general. “In my humble opinion, I think, especially in the current market, more public information is better than less, and we really should be as open and deliberate as much as possible when we consider buying land,” Guzman said. “If we tried it both ways, I’m pretty sure the evidence would show the county would get better deals.”

Hornberger has been a vocal advocate for the “three school solution,” including the NCC site for the future high school-although, this week he said he might not know all there is to know about the site. He and the five other newly elected School Board members will be briefed on more details of the matter during a closed meeting Jan. 3, immediately after they are sworn in.

“As a citizen, I have felt that the current Board of Supervisors has been more creative and innovative in their thinking than the School Board as far as where to place the school and the possibilities of a school site,” Hornberger said, referring to the School Board’s plan to ideally build high schools on 75 acres. “It’s poor planning that got us into this situation, and we are trying to make the best possible decision with what we have to work with. I think, in the end, we can make it work for everyone in Lansdowne as well as the taxpayers of Loudoun.”

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